Creating “Out of Orbit” by Jennifer Maisel

Cody (via Kate) called plays “roadmaps” in his post, and it made me laugh, since I am notorious for not being able to follow a map; so perhaps it is fitting that I am the creator of the map, hoping to convince you all to get lost in another world with me.

But that, to me, is what writing a play is like.  It’s being the cartographer of an unmapped territory, walking into a land I know nothing about and coming out on the other side having met the natives, learned their language, gotten the lay of the land, and wended my way through.

A play sparks for me when something in the world grabs hold of me and won’t let go.  In the case of OUT OF ORBIT it was an article in the Los Angeles Times about the people who were working on the Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity at Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, and how they were living on Mars Time.  A Mars day (or sol) is about 39 minutes longer than an Earth day, so those who had families who were living on Earth Time quickly went out of sync with them.  That disconnect of living on two planets simultaneously felt intensely theatrical to me, and with that I began my research.

To be clear, I’m not a science girl.   I did OK in high school, scammed my way out of taking physics, and paid lip service to the bare minimum in college.  Science scared me. I really wondered if I would ever be able to understand this rarified world and then interpret its language for the stage.  I was seriously intimidated by the play I was choosing to write and in the process let it beat me a bunch of times.  OUT OF ORBIT went into the drawer many times (to magically get better, which happens every time you put it into the drawer) and every time I took it out I reread all the science I had and I re-researched, channeling the inner science girl that had to be inside me somewhere.

I was also waiting for the 90 day mission – which had gone on far longer than 90 days – to be over, because I was sure the answer to the play lay in how the mission ended.  As much as I had become a huge fan of Spirit and Opportunity as the little rovers that could, I kind of also wanted them to finish already, so I could finish the damn play.  (In the middle of this process, another playwright gently suggested to me that maybe, while I was waiting to figure out the end of this play, I should write another play – a light bulb moment – and I wrote THERE OR HERE, the first draft of which, although also inspired by an article I read about people outsourcing pregnancies to India, was finished in a few short months – you never know how long the journey’s going to be until you get there).

And here’s the thing – I was fascinated by the people in this world and what they were doing.  They’re true explorers and they’re fervent about what they do and that’s something I understand – passion for your work.

So I kept coming back to this play, even though Spirit and Opportunity were obviously not giving up the ghost(s) any time soon.   And then I was accepted into the Sundance Theatre Lab  – with only the first act and few scenes of the second written – and then I had the one thing that every writer needs to find where the play is going: a deadline.

And here’s the other thing every playwright needs when they are lucky enough to get it –  the collaboration that makes us know whether the roadmap will actually get our audience where we’re hoping they’ll go.

The two weeks of workshopping at Sundance – the luxury of immersing myself in this world with extraordinary actors, director and dramaturg etc on the trip with me – pushed me to work my way through the wilderness and choose the road to take to the border.   The intense feedback from that workshop led me into a rewrite, which led to the Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P Sloan grant for plays about science and technology and E.S.T’s First Light reading series and that response, and that rewrite,  and the recent reading at Cal Tech with an audience chock full of scientists and engineers who work at JPL and their lovely welcoming of me into the club of people obsessed with worlds beyond our own.

And now, here, Naples, Florida, a brand-new-to-this-world artistic team , and an audience to join me on the journey.  Let’s go.

Tell us what you think...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s